Face Time, or Face-to-face Time: The Medium Makes a Difference

By: Lee Rickwood

April 17, 2015

Rather revealingly, reports about digital media screen time negatively affecting our emotional development seem to have elicited a rather flat and unengaged emotional reaction.

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Digital media screen time may be negatively affecting our emotional development.

One such report, written and tabled by scientists at the University of California Los Angeles, indicated pretty clearly that young people who use smartphones were less able to read important emotional cues from other people’s faces than those who went without their ‘screen time’ – for just five days!

With less time spent practicing and performing real face-to-face communication, the scientists’ worry, social and emotional skills will decline, much as without physical exercise, muscle tone in our bodies will decline. Social skills are like other skills; you have to practice to get better.

Those social skills include reading and responding to emotional cues appropriately (like an angry, sad or confused expression), picking up and responding to non-verbal communications (like hand gestures or body posture), recognizing and reacting to vocal inflection and voice tone (like, from a real human voice, not a synthetic set of electronically-generated sounds).

“You can not learn nonverbal cues from a screen,” lead researcher Yalda Uhls stated plainly when the report was released; she’s a senior researcher with the UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center. “It is essential that face-to-face communication occur in order for children to learn these skills. If you’re not practicing face-to-face communication, you could be losing important social skills.”

(You can see this human nature manifesting itself in – one hates to say it – emoticons, those text symbols meant to re-create a human face and convey an explanatory emotional context. It’s human nature that we started using them: it’s also very human why they don’t really work.)

In its study, the UCLA team reported that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.

In just five days, changes in the their ability to read and respond to other people could be measured!

“Many people are looking at the benefits of digital media in education, and not many are looking at the costs,” said UCLA professor of psychology Patricia Greenfield, a senior author on the study. “Decreased sensitivity to emotional cues — losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people — is one of the costs. The displacement of in-person social interaction by screen interaction seems to be reducing social skills.”

The research was published online, and the report appeared in the October print edition of Computers in Human Behavior.

The psychologists studied two sets of sixth-graders from a Southern California public school: 51 who lived together for five days at the Pali Institute, a nature and science camp about 70 miles east of Los Angeles, and 54 others from the same school. (The group of 54 would attend the camp later, after the study was conducted.)

The students were shown 48 pictures of faces that were happy, sad, angry or scared, and asked to identify their feelings.

They also watched videos of actors interacting with one another and were instructed to describe the characters’ emotions.

The children who had been at the camp improved significantly over the five days in their ability to read facial emotions and other nonverbal cues to emotion, compared with the students who continued to use their media devices.

Researchers tracked how many errors the students made when attempting to identify the emotions in the photos and videos. When analyzing the photos, for example, those at the camp made an average of 9.41 errors at the end of the study, down from 14.02 at the beginning. The students who didn’t attend the camp recorded a significantly smaller change. For the videos, the students who went to camp improved significantly, while the scores of the students who did not attend camp showed no change. The findings applied equally to both boys and girls.

Even when people use digital media for social interaction, they’re spending less time developing social skills and learning to read nonverbal cues.

“We’ve shown a model of what more face-to-face interaction can do,” Greenfield said. “Social interaction is needed to develop skills in understanding the emotions of other people.”

The study is hoping to encourage parents and families to have device-free time in order to help children reach appropriate social development milestones.

Interestingly, and if for no other reason than to placate technophiles – maybe even Star Trek Holodeck fans – researchers do acknowledge that, in ten years or so, they may be asking very different questions – or at least getting different answers.

As technology develops, as digital communications more closely resemble real in-person interaction, users can in fact enhance their emotional sensitivity and closeness.

Video chat can be better than IM; fully immersive 360-degree video conversations can be better than Skype-ing.

While studying the effects of text, audio, video, and in-person communication on bonding between friends, another report noted that techno-mediated communication is certainly not all bad, and that when used to its greatest capability, technology can provide real connection between real people.

“In work I’ve done with young college students,” wrote Lauren Sherman of her team’s research, “we discovered that friends felt more connected when they had a conversation face-to-face compare to online. However, communicating on video chat also inspired feelings of connectedness; in fact, video chat more closely resembled in-person communication than it did text messaging in terms of the experience of bonding with a close friend.”

While digital media provide many useful ways to communicate and learn, some studies do suggest that skills in reading human emotion may be diminished when children’s face-to-face interaction is displaced by technologically mediated communication.

Hence, perhaps, the muted emotional reaction to their reports is explained.

If nothing else, researchers say, their studies should be a call to action, should introduce a much-needed societal conversation about the costs and benefits of our screen time, and trigger thorough, systematic and continuing examinations of digital media’s impact on children’s social development.




 submitted by Lee Rickwood







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